On Sunday, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It took Piazza four tries to garner 75% of the votes of the electors, baseball writers; Griffey was an obvious first ballot inductee, missing a unanimous vote by three, earning 99.3% of votes. It’s a measure of Griffey’s humility as a player that when asked about the three who did not vote for him, Griffey smiled and said that they probably knew he was likely to get in and wanted to save votes for players closer to the edge. Griffey is in pretty good company; Ty Cobb, first player inducted in the Hall of Fame, got 98% of votes, and Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest ballplayer of all time, squeaked in with 90%.
Piazza is historically the best hitting catcher to be inducted, and Griffey was among the most highly regarded players of his era, an era that included some of the most remarkable performances and some of the most remarkable careers ever seen in baseball. Griffey’s been compared to Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial, other superstars considered certain of membership in the Hall. He was not alone, however, at the top during the 1990’s, playing in the company of Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, Rich Gossage, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Tom Glavine, Wade Boggs, Edgar Martinez, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas, Rafael Palmeiro, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Pudge Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, and Alex Rodriguez, among others (Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, John Olerud).
Of that extraordinary constellation of talent, Larkin, Henderson, Molitor, Boggs, Ripken, Gossage, Glavine, Maddux, Thomas, Gwynn, Biggio, Eckersley, Smoltz, Johnson, and Pedro Martinez have been enshrined. A change of rules limits the number of years that a player can remain under consideration to ten, reduced from fifteen only two years ago. Had the ten year limit been in place earlier, players absent from the Hall could have included Duke Snyder, Bert Blyleven, and Bruce Sutter, each of whom needed more than ten years to reach the 75% level. The same rule applies to consideration by the Veterans Committee , still considering Gil Hodges, Mickey Lolich, Thurmon Munson, Roger Maris, and Jack Morris (come on!).
The change of rules particularly affects the players who played in the 1990’s and likely reflects concern that players suspected of using PEDs might get past the 75% barrier and tait the sanctity of the Hall of Fame, particularly Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens. Edgar Martinez would be the first designated hitter to enter the hall, should writers recognize the importance of that skill as they did in honoring the contributions of relief pitchers. It will interesting to see if Trevor Hoffman gets in while Martinez is left out.
Arguments about the annual selections are to be expected; we are fans, after all, so our judgments are often clouded by our own experience of the sport. Of the four to be considered by the Veterans Committee, for example, two are Yankees and two are Tigers; I am not without bias in considering their careers.
It is in the furrier realm of establishing the worthiness of a player’s character that the arguments get truly heated. One camp holds prospective inductees to a high standard of behavior on and off the field; the other considers performance the only significant factor. For the first group, the inclusion of Barry Bonds would desecrate the sanctity of the Hall of Fame; for the second, the exclusion of Barry Bonds, clearly the most formidable player of his time, is absurd.
I’ve been reading about baseball for sixty years, which is significant only in that I read accounts of the early years of baseball, the unsanitized histories which included unapologetic womanizing, alcoholic binges before, during, and after games, fistfights, assaults, purposeful injury of other payers, gambling, unsavory associations with lowlife thugs, and rampant racism.
Shirley Povich, who was certainly among the most revered of sports journalists, described a Ty Cobb who would probably not find unanimous acclamation today. “Yes, the greatest player of all time was baseball’s preeminent unconscionable scoundrel; as miserable a cretin as ever pulled on a uniform, and an outspoken racial bigot to boot.” Rumors persist that Cobb and Tris Speaker were members of the Ku Klux Klan and that both had fixed games during their career. Grover Cleveland Alexander was notoriously a better pitcher drunk than sober. In modern times, Gaylord Perry probably ignored the rules of the game every time he took the mound, doctoring the ball with spit, vaseline, and other substances I chose not to imagine. Orlando Cepeda served ten months for smuggling marijuana.
I may have tipped my hand. Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame. Vile though I find him to be, Roger Clemens belongs in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose is Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits and games played; he won three World Series rings, was Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and appeared in seventeen All Star Games. Rose should be in the Hall of Fame; “Charlie Hustle” was a dominant player of his era, and that criterion is the one that matters to me. Long banished Joe Jackson should be in the Hall. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Nap Lajoie considered Shoeless Joe Jackson the best hitter in the game. Bob Feller and Ted Williams petitioned the Veterans Committee to reconsider his candidacy; Williams considered him the hitter he most admired.
I’ll watch Piazza and Griffey as they are brought into the company of some of the game’s greatest players, cheer their achievements and continue to believe that the other greats they played with and against have a place in that exalted company.